Factory Girl: Interview with Stephen Palmer

Stephen Palmer is the author of fifteen novels, dabbling in a variety of genres from science fiction to slipstream, including steampunk, alternate history, and fantasy. He tells tales of the past-that-might-have-been, and the future-that-might-yet-be. His gripping and thought-provoking prose is both wildly creative and chillingly conceivable.

In the Factory Girl trilogy, Stephen Palmer brings us a meticulously constructed clockpunk alt-Edwardian world, full of bustling automata and a myriad of other tiny details. The story of Kora and Roka, different personalities of the same young woman, the ‘girl with two souls’, sweeps us along from England to Africa and back again in an intricate plot that centers on themes of identity and society.

The Girl With Two Souls, The Girl With One Friend, and The Girl With No Soul will be released today and throughout December 2019 in brand-new editions from Infinity Plus Press.

Amazon UK

Amazon USA

Find out more on Stephen’s website.

TGW2S Juliana preview
The new cover for the re-released edition of The Girl With Two Souls

Hi Stephen, thanks for joining me on the blog. Congratulations on the release of the new editions of the Factory Girl trilogy! Could you tell me a little about the cover changes?

The trilogy got some good reviews, which I and Keith Brooke – my outstanding editor, and the man behind Infinity Plus Books – were pleased with. But afterwards I felt it could maybe do more. Last year I met Tom and Nimue Brown at the Asylum Steampunk weekend, and on the Saturday I got to see more of Tom’s artwork. Tom has a unique style of creating images, which I immediately fell for. Nimue hand colours the art for their graphic novels – they are a fantastically talented pair. With both of them being fans of the trilogy (Nimue reviewed it for her Druidlife blog), it occurred to me that the trilogy could benefit from being re-jacketed. I floated the idea to Keith, and he agreed. In due course the arrangement was made with Tom and Nimue. I saw them in Stroud a few months ago, and we had an enjoyable chat in a pub. Lovely couple.

After a while I sent Tom a few descriptions and other suggestions, and he came up with the images this year, all three of which we loved.  Then it was a matter of firing up Photoshop to create the cover designs.

Identity is a key theme in the Factory Girl trilogy, as indeed with many of your other works, such as the excellent Beautiful Intelligence. What is it about this theme that fascinates you?

That’s a good question, a wise question. I’m going to have to think a bit about it. [Thinks for a few days…] Well, perhaps it’s because the main direction of my thinking life is the relationship between human beings and the real world, a relationship which, in my own life, has been conveyed by understanding. Understanding, for me, is the most fundamental aspect of individual and social life. It’s what motivates the majority of my life anyway. I think Kora’s need to understand the circumstances of her life is based in part on my own drive for meaning.

Human beings have two main ways to create meaning, including the meaning of other people, which is identity. We can create it ourselves from what we are told, or we can find it out from first principles. I would characterise the former as narcissistic and the latter as realistic. The former says: this is what I believe regardless of the real world. The latter says: I’ll test the real world, see what it tells me, then make a decision based on that. Most people form their identity from a blend of the two. They’ll be born and brought up in a particular culture, which they’ll adopt as the norm. But a lot of people will move on from that. I think this is why women in general are a better representation of humanity than men. Men take so much on faith. Women tend to communicate more, and better, which allows them to see themselves from other perspectives; and that’s a key to personal growth, I think, including for identity.

In Beautiful Intelligence this aspect of social life is more generally presented. Leonora is going for the individual, faith-based option via her AI, while Manfred decides to see what the BIs will tell him. His first scene, the cutting of the bonds between the nine BIs, is his answer to his thought process. Leonora by contrast has no idea what Zeug will do because she has imposed her own ideas onto it.

A lot of my work is about this split in human meaning and its relationship with identity. Even in my debut, Memory Seed, the priestesses of the Goddess realise at the end of the novel that their lives have been lived regardless of what the world was telling them. The story ‘First Temple’ in my recent collection Tales From The Spired Inn tells the same story in civic life. We cannot be saved. We have to save ourselves.

Your main protagonist is actually two characters in one: Kora and her ‘other soul’, Roka. What inspired her creation? Did you find you had to do a lot of research into subjects such as dissociative identity disorder to pull off this ambitious character?

About a year before I put the trilogy together I had an idea for a book title – The Girl With Two Souls. I don’t know why this title popped into my mind, unless it somehow represented ideas which interest me, and which are the philosophical theme of the trilogy: do human beings or other creatures and creations have a soul or spirit? Anyway, I wrote it down for future reference, as it seemed a particularly intriguing title for a novel. The year after, that title and the whole thematic template for the trilogy merged and came out in a single two hour splurge. I knew Kora was the girl with two souls, I knew she had one black African parent and one white British parent, and I knew she would alternate between Kora and some other character. Now, the strange thing is, this alternation of identity has been recorded in reality; there are some individuals with DID who alternate regularly, day by day. I was so astonished to read this that I remembered it much later, when it became the central aspect of Kora’s mental condition.

I did do a little research, but not much – just enough to make the grounding plausible. There are aspects of Kora which are my own invention, while other aspects are psychologically grounded. Also, I wanted to emphasise that the Edwardian society surrounding Kora would look at her from a Christian perspective, i.e. that she did have two souls within. There was very little understanding of mental conditions in those days – a theme of my WW1 novel Tommy Catkins. Freud, for instance, had in 1910 only been published for a couple of decades. So Kora is psychologically grounded, but also a person of my imagination.

I think this might be a good point to mention an aspect of the trilogy which some readers found perplexing, and that is the “second novel” which intertwines with the main one. This is Amy’s Garden by Reverend Carolus Dodgson. I can tell you that right from that opening splurge of ideas I knew Amy’s Garden had to be a central element of the trilogy. It is of course an alternate version of Alice In Wonderland – I’ve always loved that book, like millions of others. So I re-wrote it, using Dodgson’s love of logic in my own particular way, asking and answering questions about consciousness and the human condition. Amy’s Garden is a book Kora cannot live without. As she declares much later, it is her heart. I did everything I could to encapsulate in the smallest possible amount of prose, and as vividly as possible, ten central aspects of consciousness and the human condition: that is what Amy’s Garden is, over twelve brief chapters. Kora, lacking a steady identity, grasps at a deep level that the book speaks to her, which is why she carries it in her pocket and is never parted from it. And in Amy’s Garden itself I played with a kind of conceptual echo, since Amy herself carries a book in her pocket…

By the way, in Alice In Wonderland, Alice’s sister is not named, though some believe she is called Lorna. I called her Amy, and had Alice herself appear briefly part of the way through Amy’s Garden, alongside her parents. Now, in real life back in 2013, I knew two sisters called Amy and Alice, which is where Amy’s name came from. They were students at the college where I worked! I never told them, of course…

In your blog post ‘The Unemployment Problem’ you talk about your automata. Did you go through different models for employment in your world before settling on that one, or was it clear from the start which direction you wanted to go in?

The second line in my notebook from that two hour splurge says: touchstone, steampunk. I knew right away that I wanted to write a steampunk or steampunk-influenced work. So automata were the direction to go in. I think I was also influenced by a television documentary I watched presented by Professor Simon Schaffer called ‘Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams.’ This was broadcast in autumn 2013, and I remember being fascinated by it, as at the time I knew nothing about how complex automata were in historical times. I’ve watched it a couple of times since, it really is an amazing documentary.

I particularly liked the idea of automata being the slaves underpinning the British Empire, as so much of the wealth and power of that real era came from exploitation: of the working class, of people in colonial nations like India, and, in previous centuries, of actual slaves, like those taken from West African countries. Linking these automata slaves with Kora’s father and his Factory seemed the perfect connection to me, and made for some great plot twists!

The Clockwork Garden is amazing! How did the idea for this come about? And additionally, what is your personal favorite Factory Girl location?

How strange that you should mention the Clockwork Garden in that way! It so happens I can remember exactly how it came about – no coincidence, maybe. I was at the day job, out for a lunchtime stroll – this would be autumn 2013 – and was walking back to the college through a place in my home town of Shrewsbury called the Quarry, which is basically an old sandstone quarry now converted into a beautiful green park adjacent to the River Severn. By this time I was putting together all the details for the novel, prior to writing the first volume December 2013 – January 2014. As I looked out at the trees and bushes I had a sudden mental image of them all made in metal. From that single thought came the whole idea of the Clockwork Garden. I remember being pretty excited about this idea – I wrote it down in my notebook as soon as I got back, then, later, made it more sophisticated to include clues about the Factory and other details. I love it when inspiration strikes in this way. As I’ve written on my blog and at SFF Chronicles, I think authors should always listen to their subconscious. It’s where a lot of the important work happens.

I think my favourite location is probably Dr Spellman’s house in Sheffield. It was very important to me because it was the first safe location for Kora after she was sprung out of Bedlam Mental Hospital. My version of Bedlam was inspired by an actual mental hospital, you see, and Dr Spellman’s house is topographically almost identical to a house I know. Because in those first two chapters you don’t know for sure that Dr Spellman is a good man, I intuitively hit upon the idea of using a house I have fond memories of. The reader of course wouldn’t be aware of any of this, but it was important to me; it affected the tone of my writing. I wanted to write from a position of knowing deep down that Kora was safe, not in peril as she was inside Bedlam. This all sounds a bit odd, I know, but when I created the template for the trilogy it all came out of my subconscious in one go, which told me that the whole thing was ready formed in there and just waiting for the right moment to emerge. So it felt right that Dr Spellman’s house should link to my own memories in some way, giving it extra depth and an aura of safety. From that house, Kora is able to explore. It gives her a solid foundation. There’s a scene at the beginning where Dr Spellman is waiting for Roka, and he is sitting half asleep at the top of a staircase; that’s directly out of my own visual memories of this house.

You also have a new novel on the way, set in the Factory Girl world. Could you tell us a bit about The Conscientious Objector?

After writing the third volume of the trilogy I had a year off, as I’d done a lot of work, felt exhausted, and needed a rest. But, as I rested, I realised Erasmus Darwin had a tale yet to tell, so in December 2015 I began The Conscientious Objector, which takes place in 1914 – 1915 and tells of Erasmus’ reaction to the outbreak of what even then was called the Great War (i.e. World War 1). Erasmus of course loathes physical combat, as evinced by his reaction to being given a pistol by his Uncle Frank when Frank’s house is under siege in The Girl With One Friend. I realised that in WW1 he would by inclination be a pacifist, and perhaps even a conscientious objector, though that would be a very dangerous position for him to take. Conchies, as they were known, could be shot by firing squad. Many were. (My subsequent WW1 novel Tommy Catkins went deeper into this soldiers’ dilemma.)

I wanted Erasmus to have a female companion, so the other main character is Claudia Cooper, a strange woman of very mysterious origin. As I thought about these two characters and their relationship I decided to use the notion of early childhood memory, focusing on that point when we have our first recallable memories – usually around the age of three or four – but for Claudia blurring them into something indistinguishable from fantasy. As a consequence, much of the novel is Claudia and Erasmus delving deep into her origin via a most extraordinary special mission given to them by the British generals on the Western Front. The novel ends with a revelation which, of course, I couldn’t possibly divulge here, but which presents both Claudia and Erasmus with a life-threatening situation the like of which neither has ever encountered.

This novel, like the trilogy, also has a second book intertwined with it, which I wrote shortly after completing Amy’s Garden. It is Amy’s Adventures In Narkissos, a much darker work, as is suggested by the scene in The Girl With Two Souls where Kora, via the Amy doll, asks a question about it, to her immediate shame. This second Reverend Carolus Dodgson book details more of Amy’s world, asking questions of its reader about the role of selfishness (or more accurately narcissism) in their lives.

Do you have plans for more work in this setting?

No. It’s done and dusted. I’m terribly restless creatively, and I have two other alternate history fantasy/steampunk works finished or in preparation. But I do feel great warmth towards the Factory Girl trilogy, and I feel very lucky that Keith published it. He’s been a tremendous support to me. Many thanks for asking these great questions Juliana, I had fun answering them!

And thank you, Stephen, for sharing your insights on your work!

Find Stephen’s work on Amazon (see links above); other buying options including Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords available on the Infinity Plus website.

Juliana_The_Quarry
The Quarry in Shrewsbury, inspiration for Palmer’s Clockwork Garden